Kids separated from their parents in Homestead are at the center of a political fight

U.S. Sen. Bill Nelson, center and congresswoman Debbie Wasserman Schultz, right, were denied entry by security into the Homestead Temporary Shelter for Unaccompanied Children on Tuesday, June 19, 2018, in Homestead, Fla. (AP Photo/Brynn Anderson)
U.S. Sen. Bill Nelson, center and congresswoman Debbie Wasserman Schultz, right, were denied entry by security into the Homestead Temporary Shelter for Unaccompanied Children on Tuesday, June 19, 2018, in Homestead, Fla. (AP Photo/Brynn Anderson) AP

Bill Nelson didn't show up for work on Tuesday, but he likely won't get dinged for it.

The Democratic senator fighting for reelection against Republican Gov. Rick Scott was 1,100 miles away from Washington, sweating in front of the Homestead Temporary Shelter for Unaccompanied Children after being denied entry to the facility with Rep. Debbie Wasserman Schultz.

Dozens of news cameras surrounded him.

"This is not a good day for our country, where a U.S. Senator and a U.S. Congresswoman have been turned away from a federal facility because the Trump administration does not want us to check on the welfare and care of the children inside, children who have been taken from their moms and dads," Nelson said.

The moment has marked the most media exposure Nelson has secured during his Senate campaign so far. His face was plastered on front pages across the state and across evening newscasts, while his opponent, Gov. Rick Scott, saw his latest trip to Puerto Rico relegated to second-fiddle status.

The Trump administration's decision to separate immigrant children from their families after they attempt to cross the border illegally has turned into a political firestorm in Miami-Dade, where the presence of three facilities that house unaccompanied minors and children that were separated from their parents is the physical embodiment of a White House policy that is widely condemned throughout the country.

And it has given Democrats a chance to go on offense to blame the Republican Party for standing by as the Trump administration loses of nearly 6,000 children.

It puts Republicans, including members fighting for reelection, in a tough spot. Miami Rep. Rep. Carlos Curbelo has blamed the Trump administration for the situation in Homestead, which lies within his Miami-to-Key West congressional district, as he works with the Trump administration to stitch together support for an all-GOP compromise immigration bill in Washington.

"I do think that anytime a Member of Congress shows up at one of these facilities, they should be granted access," Curbelo said Wednesday morning. "It's the Congress that funds all of these government departments, and the administration should welcome members into these facilities to make sure they know exactly what is going on there so we can explain it to our constituents."

But even as Curbelo said that he would fire Attorney General Jeff Sessions for implementing the policy and asked him to stop it immediately, Democrats excoriated him.

California Democratic Rep. Juan Vargas interrupted Curbelo while he was talking to reporters on Tuesday night after President Trump addressed Republican lawmakers on Capitol Hill about his compromise immigration bill.

"I hope you tell him (Trump) about this putting people in cages Carlos, I hope you tell him about this," Vargas said, talking over Curbelo. "You were the one we we're hoping on and you haven't helped us out on this at all Carlos and it's wrong."

"I wish you would have been this upset when the Obama administration had children in cages," Curbelo replied, referring to the former administration's practice of detaining unaccompanied children who tried to cross the border alone. The Obama administration did not separate families who crossed the border together unless there was a concern that the children were being trafficked.

"Because we weren't doing this (separating families), and you know that, and that's what's wrong and you guys are lying about it, it's certainly not Biblical," Vargas said as he turned and walked away.

Curbelo's likely Democratic opponent, Debbie Mucarsel-Powell also criticized him as he attempts to pass an immigration bill and end the practice of child separation that was endorsed by the president.

"In this last week alone Congressman Curbelo handed over every piece of leverage on immigration to the most anti-immigrant factions of his party, and he has failed to hold this out-of-control president accountable," Mucarsel-Powell said in a statement. "Now we have learned that there are nearly 1,000 migrant children being detained right here in our community in South Florida."

And while Scott wrote a letter to Health and Human Services Secretary Alex Azar condemning the separation policy and asking federal officials to inform Florida if unaccompanied minors or children separated from their parents end up in facilities like Homestead, he didn't mention that Trump could end the policy tomorrow by signing an executive order. The letter continues a pattern by Scott of not criticism Trump when he disagrees with the president on policy. Instead, Scott blamed Congress for failing to pass immigration legislation.

"The chaos at the border is a direct result of career politicians like Nelson who for years have failed to take action on this federal responsibility because they are just talkers, not doers,” Scott campaign press secretary Lauren Schenone said in a statement.

Scott also provided $600,000 in state incentive money to the compnay that runs the Homestead facility as part of a jobs program.

Republican Sen. Marco Rubio didn't call on Trump to suspend the policy immediately either, though 12 other Republican senators did in a letter to the president.

"Our approach is to have something in place that allows families to be held together," Rubio said. "Get this passed as soon as possible."

Trump said Wednesday he plans to sign an order to stop the separation of families at the border, though the issue has already emboldened Democrats in Florida. The four leading Democratic candidates for governor said Wednesday Phil Levine, Gwen Graham, Andrew Gillum and Chris King, will join a march at Homestead on Saturday.

Nelson, like other Senate Democrats, called on Trump to reverse the policy himself. Every Senate Democrat has signed onto a bill by Sen. Dianne Feinstein that Republicans argue amounts to a "catch and release" situation that encourages illegal immigration.

"Despite all the finger pointing and the deflection, President Trump and his administration knows that this is their policy," Nelson said in a speech on the Senate floor on Wednesday after his Homestead visit. "There's nothing in the law that requires them to tear parents from their children. There's nothing in the law that requires the administration to rip an infant from a parent's arms. The decision to enact this quite horrendous and shameful policy was a decision by this administration and this administration alone."

Miami Herald staff writer David Smiley and McClatchy DC staff writer Brian Murphy contributed to this report.

Alex Daugherty, 202-383-6049, @alextdaugherty